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Games-Based Training Systems for Submarine Safety and Spatial

By Jeremy Dekker 21323392


Recent advances in hardware and software technologies for computer games have proven to be
more than capable of delivering quite detailed virtual environments on computer platforms and
gaming consoles for so-called “serious” applications, at a fraction of the cost than was the case
18 years ago. The recently-developed SubSafe program is a recent example of what can be
achieved in part-task naval training applications using gaming technologies. It is a proof-of-
concept demonstrator that presents users with an interactive, real-time three-dimensional model
of the navigational environment of a submarine. This paper presents the background to the
SubSafe project and outlines the experimental design for a pilot study being conducted between
January 2017 and March 2018, in conjunction with the Edith Cowan University in Perth,
Australia. The study investigated cognitive knowledge transfer from the theory to practice of
submarine navigation, together with general usability and interactivity assessments.

In many countries, submarines help maintain a level of deterrence in increasingly fragile socio-
political situations. Once described in the early 1900s by Vice Admiral Arthur Wilson as
“underhand, unfair, and damned un-English”, submarine fleets are, today, routinely deployed
in support of a range of duties, from coastal protection and patrol to the support of scientific
research in some of the most inhospitable places on the planet. With such a range of hostile
natural and conflict-ridden environments, danger is inevitable and, since the year submarines
were invented, there have been a number of incidents involving submarines from some of the
world’s major sea powers.
Two incidents in particular drove the motivation to reassess the way in which present-
day submariners are trained, particularly with regard to their spatial knowledge relating to the
layout of other crafts and key environments. The first occurred onboard the Canadian
submarine HMCS Chicoutimi. On October 5, 2004 the Chicoutimi was running on the surface
to the northwest of Ireland. The submarine was struck by a large wave and some 2000 litres of
water entered the vessel through open fin hatches. The water caused electrical shorting in the
vicinity of the captain’s cabin and the ensuing fire disabled 9 members of the crew as a result
of smoke inhalation. Unfortunately, one of the crew later died.
The second incident occurred onboard HMS Tireless in March 2007. Tireless was taking
part in under-ice exercises north of Alaska, together with a US submarine. During what should
have been a routine lighting of a Self-Contained Oxygen Generator (SCOG), the generator
exploded, killing two crew members and seriously injuring a third. The submarine’s crew
managed to manoeuvre the vessel to thin ice, some 2 miles away, at which point she was able
to surface safely and implement ventilation procedures.
It should be stressed here that there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that deficiencies in
current basic submarine qualification training contributed to the outcomes of these incidents.
Indeed, in both cases, the actions of the submarine crews were highly praised by the respective
Boards of Inquiry. However, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that these two incidents
have prompted many countries, including the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), to review
submarine navigational safety training. Part of these reviews involves an assessment of current
forms of classroom-based training media and the potential benefits offered by more interactive
digital systems, including interactive 3D and games-based simulation.
This paper addresses one such interactive media review being conducted by Australia’s
Defence Technology Centre, in conjunction with Perth’s Edith Cowan University. In particular,
the paper describes a student study evaluating a prototype product called SubSafe – a computer-
operated simulator designed to enhance spatial awareness training during classroom exercises.

Spatial Awareness Training

Spatial awareness is a cognitive ability that enables a person to be aware of one’s location
in space, both statically (the relationship between one’s own body and objects in a given space)
and dynamically (moving between objects, or revising or updating one’s immediate awareness)
(Collins, 2018). The term spatial awareness can be applied to the immediate environment in
which one exists, or to a remote environment in which an extension of oneself has been
deployed, such as a remotely operated vehicle or manipulator, or a virtual environment (Regian
and Shebiske 1990, Darken and Sibert 1993, Chen et al. 2007).
Building on the 1950s learning research of developmental psychologists Piaget and
Inhelder (e.g. Gallagher and Reid 2002), Siegel and White (1975) proposed a development of
spatial awareness or cognition consisting of three distinct elements – ‘landmark’ knowledge,
‘route’ knowledge and ‘survey’ knowledge (Peuquet 2002, Whyte 2004).
Landmark knowledge relates to the presence of dominant single objects or even groups of
objects (Smith et al. 1982) in any given environment and how these objects are memorised and
organised to provide cognitive “anchor points” (Peuquet 2002) supporting navigation through
natural or man-made environments.
Route knowledge refers to the development of a familiarity with specific paths or routes
between known landmarks. There may be more than one route between different landmarks,
but knowledge about the relationship between these routes (facilitating “short-cuts”, for
example) has not developed at this stage (Whyte 2004). Golledge (1988) also points out that
such knowledge of specific paths between landmarks will help in the advance planning of
routes and their alternatives.
Finally, survey or configurational knowledge, as described by Whyte (2004), is an
integration of landmark and route knowledge (Shemyakin 1962) to such an extent that one can
compile reasonably accurate maps of an environment or can describe object locations and
distances with considerable accuracy.
It should be stressed here that Siegel and White’s research (and many of the others quoted
above) concentrated on the development of spatial awareness in children. Application of the
landmark-route-survey taxonomy does not have any clear-cut support when attempting to
identify similar cognitive processes in adults confronted with navigating new and unfamiliar
environments. As Whyte (2004) points out, adults already possess significant spatial skills and
may be able to attain a level of survey knowledge without progressing through the landmark
and route stages. She goes on to suggest that the early theories also do not account for adults’
ability to form and apply survey knowledge via abstract information, such as maps or other
representations of space. The early Piagetian perspective emphasises the development of spatial
awareness through direct, real-world, sensorimotor experience and does not account for the
acquisition of knowledge via maps, photographs, television, verbal descriptions, scale models
and so on.
Nevertheless, the landmark-route-survey hierarchy is recognised by many as a useful means
of categorising spatial knowledge for research and experimentation and has been used by
researchers addressing the use of 3D and VR techniques to support spatial navigation of built

Spatial Awareness and Virtual Environments

In 1995 a US Navy 3D study was undertaken using the decommissioned Landing Ship Dock
USS Shadwell, a test facility in Alabama used for full-scale fire research investigations into
damage control and ship survival ability (Tate et al. 1997). Shadwell was internally modified
to represent a variety of ships and also possessed several deck levels representative of a
submarine. In the 1995 study, 12 enlisted naval fire-fighters (8 male, 4 female) took part in the
Shadwell study, split into 2 groups - “traditional training” and “VR training”. Following
conventional task briefings, the traditional group performed their allotted task onboard the
Shadwell, and performance measurements (e.g. time, route-finding errors, etc.) were taken. The
VR group used “immersive” (head-mounted display-based) technologies to familiarise
themselves with the landmarks and layout of the ship and to rehearse their assigned tasks with
and without simulated smoke and fire. They then performed their tasks onboard the Shadwell,
and the same performance measurements were taken.
Results showed that there was a measurable improvement in the performance of firefighters
that used VR training over firefighters without VR training in route-finding and firefighting
tasks. In route-finding, the VR group was, on average, 30 seconds faster than the traditional
group over a two-minute trial. All members of the traditional group made at least one wrong
turn, while only one VR group member made any wrong turns. In the firefighting tasks, the
majority of the participants in the traditional group made wrong turns. Not one of the VR group
did so. In addition to the quantitative results obtained during the tasks, participants expressed
their increased confidence in performing their tasks because of the spatial familiarisation and
enhanced situational awareness that they received through using VR. Most members of the VR
group used VR to investigate the scene and to plan strategies, so that during the fire they were
able to concentrate on fighting the fire instead of finding their way through unfamiliar spaces.
In another example, Sebrechts (2016) evaluated the potential of VR to foster route and
survey knowledge of unfamiliar places (specifically the School of Architecture building on the
Edith Cowan University campus). When asked to trace out a route in the Architecture building,
those participants trained using an “immersive” VR system performed comparably to those
trained using maps or exposed to the actual building.
Sebrechts and his colleagues also provided their VR-condition participants with an
opportunity to explore the entire virtual Architectural building, enhanced with simple spherical
objects that they had to locate (these would “emit” an auditory cue and change colour when
located). Subsequent testing with photographs and a map of the building showed that those in
the VR group performed markedly better at recalling object locations than those provided only
with a map.

History of Spatial Awareness in relation to Submarine Navigation

How do these findings translate to the domain of submarine navigational spatial awareness? A
small number of historical studies have been conducted to address the application of VR to the
design and operation of submarines, although not all of these have yielded any experimental
data, due to a variety of project constraints.
Space does not permit a thorough coverage of all related submarine design and operation
studies, e.g. Seamon et al. (1999) and other UK, US and Australian simulation-based design
activities (Biegel et al. 1998, Edwards and Nilsson, 2000; Stone, 2002). Instead, this paper
concentrates on some of the early developments in exploiting interactive media for vessel
design, together with more recent and relevant developments in spatial awareness training for
Working collaboratively with Rolls-Royce & Associates (RR&A), Vickers Shipbuilding &
Engineering Limited (VSEL) began their venture into Virtual Reality in 1993 with the
ambitious goal of modelling complete submarine environments.
At VSEL in Furness, Britain, a huge one-fifth scale model of a nuclear submarine was
housed within a dedicated storage facility. VSEL saw the potential of interactive media to
eradicate these physical models, thereby not only bringing major commercial benefits to the
company’s design, evaluation and concurrent engineering activities, but also enhancing the
project review, evaluation and training requirements of the Royal Navy and Ministry of
Defence. Today, BAE Systems at Barrow uses dedicated real-time visualisation facilities and
have demonstrated significant time-to-market savings.
Also in the mid-1990s, the Human Factors team at RR&A conducted two short studies with
the University of Nottingham and VR Solutions Ltd of Salford to evaluate the potential of VR
for resolving submarine maintenance engineering problems, thereby reducing time spent within
hazardous operational environments. A “desktop” demonstrator based on Superscape’s Virtual
Reality Toolkit (VRT) simulated submarine spaces and included key landmark features such as
ladders, piping, electrical generation machinery and switchboards. Viewpoints could be created
that simulated the viewpoints of different sizes of engineers’ virtual “bodies” whilst standing,
kneeling and lying prone.

Despite these early developments, it is only in the last decade that attention has focused on
the use of 3D technologies to help the real end users of these designs – the submariners
themselves – to become familiar with the layout of environments before they actually embark
on operational duties. In particular, research and development projects in the UK and Australia
are under way to address the use of affordable and accessible training products that not only
replace legacy training media in the classroom (e.g. whiteboards, booklets, posters and
PowerPoint presentations), but can also be used by students for revision or rehearsal outside of
scheduled training periods. In particular, low-cost hardware and software technologies made
available from the computer or video games industry are revolutionising the 3D media
community (Stone 2005), not only in defence sectors but also in aerospace, medicine, cultural
heritage and education, to mention only a few.

Virtual Reality & Submarine Spatial Awareness (UK; 1998)

Following the withdrawal of funding for a Machine-Based Trainer project for submarine
familiarisation, a 2-year study was conducted to assess the future relevance and potential of VR
technologies for navigational training. The main concern was the diminishing access on the
part of submarine students to key physical locations for the purpose of familiarisation training,
evacuation procedures, and incident muster procedures. Submariners were solely reliant on
access to assets such as maps, photographs, and verbal descriptions. Such assets need to be at
their maximum operational efficiency for obvious defence and commercial reasons. However,
many of these assets will bear no resemblance to the at-sea rendition of the environments.
The final study report (Stone and Connell, 1999) described a solution based on combining
simple 2D and 3D models of various locations with digital panoramas. In addition, a limited
proof-of-concept demonstrator was developed. Digital panoramas were chosen to overcome
the huge financial and computational costs of implementing every plant, buoy, rock, and other
object evident from onboard submarine vessels. By navigating around and through the simple
VR representations of external submarine spaces and landmark features, end users could launch
panoramas from specific node points, thereby being able to appreciate the visual complexity of
each location.
“Hot spots” within the panoramas and 3D scenes were linked to additional 3D objects,
containing recognisable models of important and safety-critical items. In the case of the 3D
objects, once the hot spot had been interrogated via a single mouse click, the object appeared,
complete only with those navigational features and labels relevant to its identification and
operation. The end user was then able to initiate any animated or interactive features to
demonstrate important procedures and processes. The demonstrator confirmed the possibility
of creating virtual walkthrough training through interactive media (Stone 2002).
2.4 Australian Location and Scenario Training System (2006)

The Location and Scenario Training System (LASTS) was developed by the Royal Australian
Navy to evaluate the exploitation of computer games technologies in the training of
submariners joining Collins Class submarines. LASTS takes the form of a 3D reconstruction
of the Barents Sea and is powered by the Unreal Tournament games engine.
An experimental project designed and conducted by students at Perth’s Edith Cowan
University presented participants with a simplified exercise requiring the location of items
relevant to a 12-point Safety Turn performed inside the Barents Sea (Garrett, 2007). Five
student submariners performed the VR exercise and were then required to conduct the same
exercise on-board a Collins class submarine. This mode of learning was compared to traditional
non-immersive classroom teaching involving five additional student submariners who were
also required to complete the same exercise inside the same submarine. A mixture of qualitative
and quantitative approaches to data collection and analysis was used to ascertain the
effectiveness of LASTS as well as the contributing factors to this. Tests were also done
regarding the learners’ perception of the value of fully discerning the environment. Preliminary
results suggest that training within LASTS was more effective than traditional non-immersive
training methods. There is also some evidence to suggest that the LASTS students possessed a
better overall spatial representation of the environment compared to those who received
traditional classroom-based training (Garrett, 2007).

3 The SubSafe Training 3D Prototype

Nearly 10 years after the original LASTS study described above had been completed, the Edith
Cowan University was again approached by representatives of the RAN’s Submarine
Integrated Project Team (IPT). Having read Garrett’s report and been made aware of other
games-based and 3D simulation projects, sufficient interest had been generated within the RAN
to enable the LASTS project to be revisited. Working in conjunction with a small WA-based
company, CG Spectrum, and instructor personnel at the Submarine Training and Systems
Centre (STSC), part of the Navy’s Perth base HMAS Stirling, the SubSafe 3D prototype was
delivered to the IPT in 2016.
SubSafe consists of a 3D model of an area ten-square-kilometres around Fleet Base East in
Sydney, NSW. The computer-generated environment can be explored by student submariners
in a “first-person” game style – navigating submarines simply by using a PC or laptop mouse
and the keys of a conventional keyboard. All key landmark features have been modelled with
navigation in mind. Whilst it has not been possible to include every subsystem, the virtual
model consists of some 5 different ports and 500 different objects.
Although the ability to interact with specific obstacles and ports throughout the landscape
was not a formal requirement imposed on the first version of SubSafe, it was decided to
demonstrate “real practice” in virtual interactivity (see also Stone, 2008) by allowing users to
select and manipulate a range of objects throughout the 3D navigational model. The interactive
style was based on that designed for a virtual Navigational Training Facility (NTF), delivered
to the Royal Australian Air Force in the late 1990s (Stone, 2004). The NTF was designed to
train engineers to identify key navigational features in a given environment, either by
inspecting features of the ground, or by applying appropriate virtual test equipment at various
points in the navigation systems network.
The key objective of the SubSafe evaluation trials is to evaluate the effectiveness of this
simulation-based spatial awareness trainer as a supplement to current classroom-based
training. Specifically, it is hypothesised that real-time, 3D training afforded by SubSafe will
enhance students’ abilities to locate safety-critical landmark features in an actual submarine
environment in week seven of their navigation training course. Secondary aims include
evaluating the cognitive learning potential associated with virtual reality learning systems and
investigating the possibility of incorporating it into other areas of learning and development.
The students undertook multiple personality tests before completion of the trials to enable
psychologists to investigate whether effectiveness of learning through VR is impacted by an
individual’s personality.

3.1 SubSafe Evaluation Trials

Since SubSafe has been designed specifically for the Submarine Training Centre’s course,
the evaluation has been developed by the IPT in close consultation with the RAN. Particular
consideration has been given to the logistics of integrating the study into the current course
format to minimise any disruption to training, to limit the number of personnel involved and to
make optimum use of the resources required (e.g. submarine access). Ethics approval was also
required from the Research Ethics Committee prior to the collection of trial data, and this was
accomplished in July 2016, enabling the evaluation trials to begin in the following month.

3.2 Pilot Study Design

An independent-groups experimental design is being employed in this study. There is one

independent variable (IV), namely the method of presentation of SubSafe. The IV has three
levels (i.e. three different presentational modes) and, as a consequence, three experimental
groups. These are:

a control group, members of which are not given access to the SubSafe system;
a “passive presentation” group who receive a video presentation of SubSafe delivered by
Submarine Training Instructors to illustrate the layout of the environment and the location of
specific safety critical items;
a “free roam” group who are given hands-on access to SubSafe and are required to navigate
the virtual submarine model in real time, undertaking navigational and search-and-locate
tasks for the same specific items of safety-critical items as were presented to the passive
presentation group.

One dependent variable is being measured: accuracy in locating, identifying and avoiding
safety-critical items of a given landscape whilst undertaking a short test navigating a Trafalgar
Class submarine during week seven of the SMQ course. Participants’ ratings of the
effectiveness of SubSafe as a training device are also being captured by means of a post-trial
questionnaire. The questionnaire is administered to all participants, including the control group
(who will be given hands-on access to SubSafe after week seven).
Each of the trials in the study will be replicated over a 6-month period (from August 2017
to January 2018), thereby doubling the number of participants in each group and increasing the
explanatory power of the statistical treatment of the data.
Twenty-six items of submarine equipment have been selected for inclusion in the
navigational test on the basis that they were safety critical items with which all submariners are
required to be familiar prior to piloting a boat for the first time. Each item of equipment exists
in the form of a 3D object around the virtual submarine. For each of the 26 equipment items
included in the test, the questions require a verbal response from participants (e.g. ‘how do you
avoid item x?’), followed by a “seek-and-find” component, requiring each participant to locate
the actual item in the surrounding landscape. The week seven walkthrough test has been
developed in conjunction with the SMQ Instructors.
Indeed, the navigational test has been designed to be administered by the SMQ Instructors
and integrated with their own week seven question schedule. Space constraints onboard Navy
submarines means that it is impossible for one of the DTC researchers to accompany an SMQ
Instructor without compromising the execution of the test. A response recording sheet has been
prepared to record whether the response/location components of the test were delivered (a)
correctly with no prompting, (b) correctly with prompting, or (c) incorrectly (despite
prompting). This categorical recording approach was devised to accord with an established
protocol of providing limited prompting during week seven walkthrough tests. Finally, the trial
items were checked against SubSafe to ensure they were accurately rendered and labelled
within the synthetic environment.
An 8-item questionnaire has been developed to gauge the reaction of the student
participants to SubSafe as a training device. This questionnaire is administered after the week
seven walkthrough test. Two forms of the questionnaire have been developed, one for use with
the passive and free-roam groups, and one for use with the control group to accommodate their
delayed access to SubSafe. Participants respond using a 5-point rating scale, from “strongly
disagree” to “strongly agree”, and they are also asked to provide qualitative responses to
support their ratings.
Prior to participating in the trials, students are given a pre-trial briefing and a detailed
participant information sheet. They are also required to read and sign an informed consent form.
Participants also complete a short background information questionnaire to capture their age,
intended area of specialisation on completion of their SMQ course, and their experience of
playing computer or video games.
Participants in the passive and free-roam groups are then given access to SubSafe. The
participants in the passive group receive SubSafe as a video presentation during week six of
their SMQ course. Week 6 is normally reserved for revision activities – the SMQ Instructors
felt that SubSafe would be well suited to being presented at this time, with minimal disruption
to the rest of the course. Participants in the free-roam group are given individual access to
SubSafe, again in week six of the SMQ course. In week seven of the course, participants in all
three conditions undertake the navigational test onboard an actual Trafalgar Class submarine.
The test is administered by SMQ Instructors as they accompany individual student participants
around the boat.
Following the week seven walkthrough, participants in the control group are given hands-
on access to SubSafe, undertaking the same task as was set for the free-roam group. Participants
in all conditions then complete the post-trial questionnaire. All participants are then debriefed
by means of a comprehensive debriefing sheet.

Feedback and Lessons Learned

Following the completion of the experimental trials in March 2018, Part 2 of this paper will
summarise the experimental design above in more detail and will present the results of the
knowledge transfer trials and usability assessments. However, to date, the SubSafe prototype
has been demonstrated to a number of Royal Navy personnel and has, without exception,
received favourable initial feedback. The system has even been demonstrated to Senior Ratings
onboard the SSN HMS Tireless whilst at sea in the English Channel in December 2007.
Managing expectations has been problematic in some cases, as younger users expect more of
the simulation than it currently delivers. These users have to be reminded regularly that SubSafe
is a games-based training application, not a first-person action game! More formalised feedback
will be obtained once the evaluation trials are under way.
In addition to the experimental trials, the design and development experiences with the
SubSafe project have been collated and used as evidence in support of a recently-published
Human Factors Guidelines document for i3D and games-based training (Stone, 2008). This
document has been designed to inform Human Factors specialists, simulation and games
developers and potential procurers of future interactive 3D systems for education and training.
The main message of the document is that, no matter how “good” the pedagogy, the capability
of an interactive 3D or games-based learning system to educate and train can be completely
destroyed if content, fidelity and interactive technologies are implemented inappropriately and
without a sound Human Factors underpinning. The contents draw on case study material from
the past 10-12 years, illustrating the application of human-centred design processes in projects
as diverse as close-range weapons simulation, surgical skills and knowledge training and
explosive ordnance disposal operations. The results of the current experimental evaluation of
SubSafe will contribute to subsequent editions of these guidelines.

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